Press Freedom: ‘Sound And Fury Signifying Nothing’



The silence of journalists on key issues of press freedom is chilling, writes Stuart Rees.

In June at the National Press Club, the bosses of News Corp, Channel Nine and the ABC spoke about press freedom. David Anderson, Managing Director of the ABC said, “Press freedom is proxy for public freedom.”

In London in July, at the Global Conference for Media Freedom, the UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt pontificated, “We must stand with those who seek to report the truth and bring the facts to light.” This is the same privileged operator who a few weeks earlier expressed no sympathy for journalist Julian Assange. Hunt said he would not block Assange’s extradition to the US and that the treatment (torture and imprisonment) of Assange was ‘the right thing’.

In Sydney in September, the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom heard from Ita Buttrose Chair of the ABC who protested that police raids on the ABC and on a News Corp journalist, intimidated journalists and put terror into whistleblowers “so they won’t come and talk to us”.

To curry favour with journalists, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his government was committed to press freedom. To echo government attitudes, ALP leader Albanese said that he gave “unequivocal support for press freedom”.

Draconian security laws appear to curtail such freedom, but self-censorship also ensures that certain topics must not be discussed, at least not in any positive light.

Self-Censorship and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement

Mainstream media avoids coverage of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement (BDS) in support of Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and there’s seldom any positive commentary concerning the persecution of Julian Assange. Why?

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BDS is a world-wide, non-violent social justice movement which promotes Palestinians’ rights to self-determination. Despite predictable claims that it is anti-Semitic, the movement is based in international law and forbids racism of any kind.

Nevertheless, mainstream media remain scared to touch this topic (BDS) despite claims that their freedom to write as they will is a corner stone of democracy. Why are they so scared? Perhaps because they do not want to bite the hand that feeds them?

Journalists may be reluctant to investigate the significance of BDS issues because many have enjoyed junket trips to Israel which ignore the oppression and discrimination of Palestinians. In his book Balcony Over Jerusalem the experienced journalist John Lyons wrote, “In my opinion, no editors, journalists or others should take these trips. They grotesquely distort the reality and are dangerous in the sense that they allow people with a very small amount of knowledge to pollute Australian public opinion.”

On Palestinian issues, journalists’ aim to distort reality has been the stock in trade of Murdoch media, always dismissive of BDS activists and on occasion referring to them as Nazis. A more responsible standard of journalism might be expected from more high-brow publications.

UK Minister of State for International Development, Alan Duncan MP, visits Gaza, 10th December 2012. He is the first British minister to visit Gaza since the ceasefire entered into force on 21 November. (IMAGE: UNRWA/Shareef Sarhan, Flickr).

Yet even in The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, coverage of Palestinian issues is either derisory or non-existent. Journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald have realized the risks involved even if they write accurate descriptions of violence towards Palestinians. When Mike Carlton wrote about the carnage in Gaza following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, he was forced to resign.

Representatives of apparently powerful media institutions such as the ABC know that if they publicize anything slightly positive about Palestine let alone about BDS, they will receive abusive mail, far more than just the odd derogatory letter.

In Australia, those who speak about the BDS movement also risk character assassination. In July, Richard Falk, Professor of International Relations at Princeton and former UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories, who also happens to be Jewish, spoke about the BDS movement in the NSW Parliament. Via the Jewish News and their supporters, Falk was demonized and efforts were made to prevent his entry to Australia.

He did appear. His message was that “Any accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians must be based on equality, not hierarchy and permanent subjugation.” Hardly a controversial statement but mainstream media covered neither his presence in an Australian parliament nor what he said.

Self-Censorship concerning Julian Assange

Powerful forces suppress discussion of BDS but journalists’ reluctance to speak out on behalf of Julian Assange is less easy to comprehend.

Perhaps professional jealousy prompts indifference to Assange who revealed US murder in Iraq and Afghanistan, issues largely overlooked by conventional journalism. Instead of making amends for their neglect, several prominent journalists have been wasting time claiming they are real, and Walkley award winning Julian Assange is not. Brave members of a noble profession have been preoccupied with their self-importance. Oh dear.

(IMAGE: Steve Rhodes, Flickr)

At least UK journalists have expressed alarm that the espionage charges against Assange and the demand for his extradition to the United States are a serious threat to press freedom.

The US Freedom of Information Foundation insists, “Whether or not you like Assange, the charge against him is a serious press freedom threat and should be vigorously protested.”

A week ago from Moscow, in a MSNBC interview, the principled and significant whistleblower Edward Snowden warned that the 1917 Espionage Act under which Assange has been charged does not allow a jury to consider whether the WikiLeaks revelations were in the public interest.

Perhaps the smearing of Assange in Australia has been so effective that a critical view of him has been so taken for granted that even by their silence, journalists’ voices can’t be distinguished from the government’s?

In the hope of keeping a job in what’s left of the mainstream media, these journalists may be heeding politicians who discourage any criticism of US polices, such as those evident in the 17 espionage charges against Assange. If convicted, he faces a possible 175 years in prison.

What culture, what set of rules, which individuals could concoct such a sentence? Here was an opportunity for journalists to identify a political trial and to scorn the US desire for revenge. Instead, silence.

Self-censorship on key issues makes journalists their own worst enemies. There has been much grandstanding about press freedom but to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it has been “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

* Stuart Rees is professor emeritus at the University of Sydney and was the founder/director of the Sydney Peace Foundation

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Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.